Of Filibusters and “Stunts,” Then and Now

Eric Alterman reminisces about filibustering and political "stunts" back in the days when Democrats were in the minority.

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Remember the Gang of 14? The “obstructionist” Senate leader Tom Daschle? The demand for “up or down votes” by every right-thinker in Washington? Those were the days, huh, back when the Democratic minority refused to allow the machinery of our democracy to operate according to plan. Republicans and their allies in the media were so angry they came “this close” to eliminating the institution of the filibuster entirely.

Well, that was then. Today the tables are turned, and it’s the Republicans who are doing the filibustering. They’re doing so much of it that, at their present rate, they will have filibustered three times more than any Congress in the previous decade. Nearly one vote in six so far this year has been a filibuster vote. And these are hardly trivial issues. Republican filibusters have stopped bills to withdraw combat troops from Iraq—despite a 52-49 majority in favor of it—enact comprehensive immigration reform, address the Justice Department scandals, bolster labor rights, and, well the list goes on.

Reading and listening to the mainstream coverage of these filibusters, however, the casual citizen would have a hard time figuring out who’s responsible. As Matt Yglesias writes: “It seems, though, that the GOP has decided that if they use filibusters to obstruct congressional action that the press will keep reporting this in a ‘Congress fails to do X’ kind of way rather than a ‘GOP obstructionism’ kind of way, which makes filibusters a win-win for Republicans.”

This is, naturally, the same storyline the Republicans themselves have constructed. “We really ought to be asking why this Democrat leadership won’t allow Congress to move forward on serious policy debates,” complains Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). “Americans have been disappointed by a majority leadership that stages one show debate after another, while the only consistent legislative work getting done is the renaming of post offices.”

That problem could easily be solved if Republicans allowed votes to take place and bills to be placed on the president’s desk. And yet, almost universally, the mainstream media has written this story as if dictated by the same folks who come up with Republicans’ talking points each morning.

Take, for instance, last week’s all-nighter on Iraq. It was designed to call attention to the Republicans’ filibustering tactics, but most reporters portrayed it as a Democratic “stunt” designed to detract from the real business of governance, as if this horrific war were none of Congress’s business. Few apparently remember that former Senate Majority Leader Bill First (R-TN) employed exactly the same tactic in the Bad Old Days merely to get a few of Bush’s judges confirmed. (Far fewer judicial nominations were held up under Bush II than under Clinton, by the way, but who’s counting?)

In the case of Fox News, we get pretty much what we’ve been trained to expect. The story was reported as follows: “By a 52-47 vote, the Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have started bringing troops home within 120 days of passage.” Never mind that the 52 votes were actually in favor of the bill.

Now take a look at the coverage by Reuters, one of many such pieces flagged by Josh Marshall at It manages to describe the whole event without using the word filibuster once. Rather, we read that “Democrats have all but publicly acknowledged that they will be unable to pass their end-the-war amendment because opposition Republicans are insisting on 60 votes for a victory.” Didn’t any of the editors in question think that readers might need some guidance as to why a simple majority was not enough? Are Republican filibusters to continue wars they cannot and will not defend simply assumed?

Even The New York Times—allegedly ground-zero of the Liberal Media Conspiracy—played the story in the same misleading fashion. Its headline read: “Democrats Fail to Force Vote on Iraq Pullout.” Well, yes, but a more accurate headline would have read: “Republican Minority Refuse to Allow a Vote to End the War.” Over on the paper’s editorial page, things were considerably clarified: “The nation’s anguish over the Iraq war was kept on hold in the Senate yesterday as the Republican minority maintained serial threats of filibuster to buy time for President Bush’s aimless policies.”

The Washington Post coverage manifested the same blinkered priorities that have characterized so much of its pro-Bush, pro-war coverage. It referred to the filibuster only once, and then in the context of discussing “counter-filibusters.” And what were they countering, exactly? Your guess would be as good as that of any Post subscriber, at least as far as they were informed by articles like that one.

And on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Diane Sawyer did what might be a termed a “full Orwell” by announcing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was leading the Dems in a filibuster, though even here she was topped by the all-but-inimitable Fred Barnes, who claimed that Harry Reid was somehow “filibustering his own bill.” Huh?

Could Barnes somehow be bested in a contest to see who can be simultaneously more inaccurate and nonsensical? Sounds like a job for one Robert Novak. “These antics fit the continuing decline of the Senate, including an unwritten rules change requiring 60 votes to pass any meaningful bill,” he writes. “When I arrived on Capitol Hill 50 years ago, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (like Reid today) had a slim Democratic majority and faced a Republican president, but he was not burdened with the 60-vote rule. While Johnson did use chicanery, Reid resorts to brute force that shatters the Senate’s facade of civilized discourse.”

Novak has obviously been too busy outing CIA agents to read Robert Caro’s magisterial account of Lyndon Johnson’s years as majority leader. Perhaps the fact that Novak married the man’s secretary gives him a rather rosy view of just how Johnson went about his business. But with all due respect to Harry Reid, he is not just a pussy cat, but a veritable newborn kitten compared to the harsh and petulant rule of Majority Leader Johnson.

Then again, in the days before the blogosphere was in existence as a mainstream media corrective, lots of people used to fear Bob Novak too—and not just loyal CIA agents and the people whose lives depended on them…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Research Assistance: Tim Fernholz

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Eric Alterman

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